By: Our Correspondent

International concern is growing over the subversion of democracy in the Philippines by President Rodrigo Duterte, with the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights expressing concerns over Duterte’s murderous “drug war” which has taken the lives of thousands of mostly poor Filipinos.

Iceland has introduced a resolution putting the Philippines on the Human Rights Council’s agenda in an attempt to stem the violence and ensure accountability. In addition, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) has issued a 40-page report charging the president with leading an unprecedented crackdown on political opponents in the Congress.  And in January, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace issued a blistering 13,000-word report charging Duterte, with having “run roughshod over human rights, its political opponents, and the country’s democratic institutions.  His attacks on the press, particularly on the popular news website Rappler, have been equally virulent.

None of this has intimidated Duterte, who has scoffed at the Special Raporteur’s action, rejecting “unpardonable intrusions” into the country’s affairs. Nor has the criticism had any effect with the country’s voters, who in May delivered a resounding victory for congressional candidates backed by the president, giving him overwhelming control of the political machinery.

Nonetheless, the ASEAN parliamentarians’ report, issued earlier this week, accused Duterte of “using trumped-up criminal charges, threats and intimidation as well as a range of other tactics to subvert democracy.”

The report, “In the crosshairs of the Presidency”: Attacks on opposition lawmakers in the Philippines, purports to document how at least eight Philippine senators and representatives have faced politically motivated criminal charges since Duterte took office in 2016.

“The efforts by the Philippine government to harass, sideline and even imprison lawmakers are extremely troubling. These attempts to silence political opponents mark just one example of how democratic institutions are being eroded under President Duterte,” said Charles Santiago, the chairman of APHR and a Malaysian MP. The APHR is not an official organ of ASEAN, which practices a policy of strict non-intervention in its members’ affairs.  It is rather human rights group of current and former parliamentarians, who seek to prevent discrimination, uphold political freedom, and promote democracy and human rights

“The Philippines is in the midst of a serious human rights crisis and needs a strong and functioning opposition more than ever, but this is simply not possible in the current climate,” according to the report. “With the new Congress taking their seats in July, it is high time for the government to change course and ensure that all lawmakers can perform their duties without fear of reprisals.”

Criminal charges

Lawmakers who have opposed Duterte’s key government policies, including an effort to bring back the death penalty have faced retribution through politicized criminal charges, the report states, including Senator Leila de Lima, who has been detained since February 2017 on what the report called fabricated “conspiracy to drug trafficking” charges after seeking to launch a Senate inquiry into Duterte’s war on drugs as mayor of Davao City before he rose to the presidency.

Another seven lawmakers are facing or have faced trumped-up charges, according to the report, including  former Representatives Ariel Casilao and Antonio Tinio, who were charged with “child abuse” in October 2018 after leading a peaceful demonstration against martial law on the island of Mindanao, apparently because it was attended by indigenous youth. The move to charge the two was led by Duterte’s daughter, Sarah, who succeeded him as mayor in Davao.

Another example is Senator Risa Hontiveros, was charged with kidnapping after her office provided shelter to underage witnesses to the police murder of a 17-year-old in September 2017. She faced further “wiretapping” charges after revealing text messages in which a Duterte ally ordered cases against her to be “expedited”.

More recently, the former Senator Antonio Trillanes in 2018 faced a slew of trumped-up criminal cases due to his vocal opposition to the government and an attempt to revoke an amnesty granted for his participation in coup attempts against the late former President Corazon Aquino.

“The use of politically motivated criminal cases against lawmakers in the Philippines must end,” said Eva Sundari, an Indonesian MP and an APHR board member. “We urge the authorities to immediately drop all charges against those who have done nothing but engage in peaceful political activities – this must also include immediately and unconditionally releasing Senator Leila de Lima from detention.”

Threats and harassment

The government, the APHR report said, “has directed harsh and aggressive rhetoric towards opposition lawmakers, including by threatening those opposing its policies with jail time or even violence..Much of the rhetoric has been highly misogynistic in nature. President Duterte labelled Senator de Lima an “immoral woman” and attempted to show a fake sex tape allegedly involving the Senator in Congress before her arrest. Other female lawmakers have been berated as “stupid” and “weak”, with the President questioning their ability to hold office.”

In the online sphere, the government has done nothing to combat a barrage of misinformation (or “fake news”) and abuse directed towards Duterte critics, with Senators de Lima and Hontiveros and Vice President Leni Robredo among those most often targeted. On occasion, government officials have even fueled such abuse by sharing fake content themselves, according to the report.

The report further documents how the administration has manipulated democratic practices to undermine the opposition in Congress. Some lawmakers who opposed a move to reintroduce the death penalty in 2017 saw budgets for their home districts slashed to zero, while others were stripped of chairpersonships or membership of influential committees.

In the House of Representatives, the Duterte administration has also manipulated rules to ensure that the official Minority (or opposition) bloc – which should be an important check and balance on the executive – is essentially only composed of pro-government lawmakers.

“APHR believes that lawmakers can play a crucial role in promoting and upholding human rights, but this is only possible if they are allowed to exercise their mandates without undue interference or fear of reprisals. The attacks on opposition parliamentarians in the Philippines mirror a worrying regional trend in Southeast Asia, where authoritarian governments increasingly rely on draconian legislation and cowed state institution to sideline and harass political opponents.

“These are troubling times for democracy in Southeast Asia. Governments in the region must stop lashing out at opponents, and instead build inclusive political cultures where everyone’s views are respected. We need open and strong democracies to fulfil the promise of an ASEAN where human rights are upheld and protected for all people,” said Mu Sochua, Cambodian MP and a Board Member of APHR.